By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
To learn more about Rome past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Written in the 18th century, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is considered the classic history of ancient Rome from its peak to its downfall.
Originally published as a series of New Yorker articles in the 1950s, Rome and a Villa reads as if it’s Eleanor Clark’s journal. Of Paul Hofmann’s multiple books about Italy, The Seasons of Rome is the favorite among readers. Another good Americans-in-the-Eternal-City memoir is As the Romans Do (Epstein). A third of Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual memoir/travelogue Eat, Pray, Love takes place in Rome.
The holy center of Christendom has plenty of worthwhile books documenting its history. Saints & Sinners (Duffy) is a warts-and-all illustrated guide to the popes. Absolute Monarchs (Norwich) covers similar territory. In When in Rome, Robert Hutchinson writes as a lapsed (sometimes irreverent) Catholic discovering the roots of Christianity in Vatican City. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (King) describes the drama behind the masterpiece. The Pope’s Elephant (Bedini), written by a historian from the Smithsonian, tells the story of Pope Leo X’s favorite pet.
Simon Schama’s excellent The Power of Art includes biographies on two of Rome’s most notable artists — Caravaggio and Bernini (the companion BBC series is good, too). A Literary Companion to Rome (Varriano) also includes 10 self-guided walking tours. Kids (and adults who like cool pictures) enjoy David Macaulay’s two books about Rome: Rome Antics and City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (both for ages nine and up).
No modern crime drama or soap opera can top the world of ancient Roman politics. Colleen McCullough describes the early days of the Roman Republic in her work of historical fiction, The First Man in Rome. Robert Graves wanders from Caesar Augustus to Caligula and beyond in I, Claudius.
Ancient Rome makes a great backdrop for mysteries, as shown in Roman Blood (Saylor) and The Silver Pigs (Davis), both the first in a series. Cabal, by Michael Dibdin, takes place in modern Rome. The Dogs of Rome (Fitzgerald) is another mystery set in the modern city. In the blockbuster book Angels and Demons, written by The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, murders are linked by Rome’s Bernini statues.
For a literary take on Rome, try Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome (edited by William Weaver).
Two masterpieces of Italian Neorealism — set in the bleak, post-WWII years — take place in Rome: Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s touching, heartbreaking film Bicycle Thieves (1949).
A feel-good love story, Roman Holiday (1953) made a star out of Audrey Hepburn. Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) is another romantic crowd-pleaser.
During the era of epics, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of ancient Rome. Quo Vadis (1951) contains three hours of religious-historic drama. Ben-Hur (1959) is a campy mash-up of Christianity, Charlton Heston, and chariot races. Spartacus (1960) casts Kirk Douglas as a rebel fighting Rome. In 2000, Gladiator turned Hollywood’s attention back to ancient Rome, winning five Academy Awards for its portrayal of life in the bloody arena.
La Dolce Vita (1961) is Federico Fellini’s seductive masterpiece. (His 1972 film Roma seems tacky in comparison.)
The warm-hearted Italian epic Best of Youth (2003) takes place in several Italian locations, including Rome; this story of two brothers gives you a good sense of the last several decades of Italian history.
Originally a BBC miniseries, I,Claudius (1976) puts Derek Jacobi and John Hurt at the center of a pulpy classic. The HBO miniseries Rome (2005–2007) gives an Upstairs-Downstairs look at the lives and loves of Julius Caesar and Augustus.
The 2009 film Angels and Demons, based on the book by The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, is set in Rome. Banned from filming in Vatican City, cameramen disguised themselves as tourists to gather some of the shots. The 2010 film version of Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts, was filmed partly in Rome and Naples.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Rome guidebook.